Memphis Backyard Farmer

March Bee Keeping Update
March 31, 2011, 12:42 am
Filed under: Bee Keeping, Uncategorized

It’s a miserable day here in Memphis. Actually, it’s been a miserable week of rain and cold. The weather is still so very finicky, undecided about staying in the familiar gray of winter or taking the leap into the green freshness of spring. Seems like an easy choice to me.

While I wait, I’m trying to get my bee keeping supplies in order. It’s the end of March, which means there’s lots to do. Memphis bee keepers should already have an idea of the state of their colonies. Did yours make it through the winter? Are they already building up? Does any equipment need to be repaired or replaced?

Personally, I’ve had – for me – a rough winter. Late last fall I lost a colony to small hive beetles (SMB), a constant pressure on bees here in this part of the south. We go back and forth – some times I win, some times they win. I lost a round with a young colony I had started as a split last spring. So going in to the fall, I was down to four hives, one of which was a very small colony of Italian bees I had obtained as a nuc in the spring. I thought for sure it wasn’t going to make it through the winter. After all, it was small, and lets face it – Italians just don’t over winter as well as my Russian colonies do.

Surprisingly, though, this colony came through in great shape. When I last checked – about three weeks ago, they were really building up, collecting pollen, and very healthy.

Meanwhile, one of my other colonies, a Russian and sister split of the hive I lost in the fall, failed. I seriously think this is my first CCD loss. It overwintered with a strong cluster, full of bees. I fed her during the winter and it looked great. When I went to check on her last, the hive was empty. Maybe 4 or 5 dead bees inside the colony, and none outside the hive entrance. The hive had a full super of honey on it. They didn’t starve or freeze – if you’ve seen a hive starve, then it’s unmistakable, all those bee bottoms stuck out of the combs. This really took me off guard. So now I’m down to 3 hives, the fewest I’ve had in a while.

Fortunately, I have a queen on the way from Wolf Creek Apiaries in middle Tennessee. I’ve been wanting to try some bees from their operation for a while. They’re all organic, and their philosophy of breeding is more natural than the pure strains most have been producing for the past few decades. I’ll do a split with this queen and hopefully get another split later in the spring by overcrowding one of my hives and producing my own queen. If I can end up this season with 5 or 6 hives, I’ll be happy.

But now that I’m sitting on some empty equipment, I really don’t have much to do this year. Usually I’d be assembling frames and painting woodware. You, however, should have wax in frames, woodware painted, expecting your packages to arrive. You should also be feeding your bees, since the pollen flow is probably irregular and the warm weather has already flipped the “lay eggs” switch “On” in your queen. Your colonies will need lots of honey (and pollen substitute if you can get it) to keep the new brood fed so that you enter the big spring flow with plenty of bees.

So are you ready? How did your hives make it through the winter?

Down The Rabbit Hole
March 25, 2011, 4:09 am
Filed under: Livestock, Rabbits

Got any livestock? I’ve been a bee keeper for about 15 years, but I’ve been anxious to push the suburban neighbors’ patience and add chickens and goats. In the mean time, however, I’ve settled on…rabbits.

First of all, the story of how I got into rabbits. We have this friend – a neighbor who lives a few blocks down. Her kids play with our kids, and they have a zoo at their house. Cats, dogs, birds, and until recently, a big, buck, dutch rabbit. When I found out about “Bunny Bunny” (this is a house full of girls), I blurted out “Hey, can I come by and get some rabbit poo?”. As Novella Carpenter says in her book “Farm City”, rabbit poo is the holy grail of manure. My friend was a bit taken aback, but said “yeah, sure, any time” and we left it there. Three days later, my neighbor had evidently reached a moment of pet overload and called me, frantic. “Do you want this rabbit? I’ll give you the rabbit, food, bowls and two cages, just PLEASE COME GET IT!”

That’s how I got into rabbits.

I now have a doe, “Lola” (“Bunny Bunny” has since been re-named “Bugsy”, so those of you familiar with “Space Jam” will get the connection). She comes with a more incredible story. I had been surfing Craigslist for a while looking for a doe to start breeding for meat rabbits. I was waiting until I could build a suitable cage for the love of Bugsy’s life before I picked up another. But driving home one day from teaching a 4-H gardening class, I saw a dark blur hopping in the light brown grass of a park a few miles from my house. At first I thought it was a cat, but I know the hop of a rabbit. I slammed on the brakes and backed into the parking lot of the park and ran to see a small black rabbit hopping about, nibbling on the lawn. I stepped. She noticed, then went back to munching. I stepped again, and she made a small hop away. We kept this dance up for about 30 minutes before finally I found myself squatting down just feet from this little girl. A quick grab and she was mine.

I’ve found that I love having rabbits. Lola is not quite old enough to breed, so no meat quite yet. But there are still some real benefits to having a rabbit or two.

  1. Meat. Rabbit meat is higher in protein and lower in fat than even chicken. It’s all white meat, and I think it tastes great. We have four boys and they can put away some food. I’m looking for an alternative to store-bought chicken that is economical. Medium breeds can have anywhere from 4-6 in a litter, whereas larger breeds can have 8-10. According to some information I’ve seen, you can butcher a rabbit at 12 weeks, and you can breed your pair a couple of times a year. That’s a lot of meat on a small budget.
  2. Manure. As I’ve already said, those little Cocoa Puffs are magic. Rabbit manure is higher in NPK than virtually every other common manure. However, it’s very mild and in some cases can be added directly to your crops (though I prefer to put it in the compost pile).
  3. Compost. Rabbits are a great way to speed up your composting. Before I had rabbits, most of my “green” waste – scraps from leafy vegetables, tomatoes, onions, etc. – went to the compost pile to slowly decompose. And as I’d weed the garden and flower beds, many weeds or leaves would go into the compost as well. Now, my rabbits “pre-compost” my green waste. I feed it to them. There are some things they won’t eat, but most of it they’ll devour. Then the digested waste gets dumped in the compost pile as manure, and my compost finishes a bit quicker.

Think about adding some rabbits to your collection of livestock. Just watch out for the sharp, pointy teeth.

Bee Informed
March 17, 2011, 7:47 pm
Filed under: Bee Keeping

My bread and butter crop is honey. I’ve been a hobby bee keeper for about 15 years, and each year we produce enough supply to support our “habit”. Although I haven’t had any wide-spread losses due to collony collapse disorder (CCD), I lose a hive or so a year due to small hive beetles or weak colonies that don’t make it through the winter.

Over-wintering is tricky. For instance, this year I went into the winter with three very strong hives and one weak hive. The weak hive was a nuc of Italian bees I started last summer, and the three strong hives were Russian colonies, which generally over-winter well. As I’ve checked them through the winter they all seemed to be doing well. However, on my last trip a few weeks ago, the Italian colony was doing really well, whereas one of my Russian colonies was very weak. I’m still not sure if it’s going to make it.

So I’m excited about a new project for bee keepers by that measures winter losses and will try to answer the question “Why?”. Why do losses occur in some fields and not others? Here’s a clip from the press release from the “Catch The Buzz” newsletter (a great resource, by the way):

“This project will adapt the tools developed by human epidemiologists to study complex human diseases (such as cancer or heart disease) to study honey bee colony health. However, this project will be slightly different than traditional “community health” initiatives in a couple of important ways:

  1. Its focus will be to identify management practices than keep colonies alive (rather than just looking for factors that increase the risk of mortality)
  2. Findings will be shared rapidly, transparently, and in ways that will enable beekeepers to make informed individualized decisions

At its core, the Bee Informed Partnership is motivated by the conviction that beekeepers, when presented with beekeeper-derived data that objectively shows which management practices worked and which did not, will adopt the more successful practices. This, in turn, will reduce colony losses.”

If you’re a bee keeper interested in the project, you can sign up using this link. UPDATE (3/18/2011): This morning I’ve been alerted that the web site for enlisting in the study was not quite ready for production and had to be taken down. I’ll repost this link when it becomes available.

Of Microsoft and Monsanto
March 11, 2011, 7:15 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

I’m a geek by trade. I went to school to be a programmer, but have spent the vast majority of my professional life connecting computers and users through various types of networks. I couldn’t possibly describe myself as an “old timer” (I did come along after punch-cards, thank you very much), but I’ve been around a while. Long enough to see the rise and fall of Microsoft.

In the mid-90’s, Microsoft ruled the PC landscape. IBM made good, over priced personal computers and “big iron”, Compaq was emerging as the leader in PC sales and Dell was fast becoming a formidable rival, rising up out of Michael Dell’s dorm room to lead the way in Internet retail. Microsoft’s Windows operating system ran on them all. And Apples were for pies.

Microsoft reached a place of dominance that allowed it to dictate what kind of software people could run, what kind of hardware should be built, and what software engineers should be developing. Microsoft became famous for bullying hardware manufacturers into dropping competitive software products from new PCs. Because of their deep pockets, they also had a reputation of dumping software on the open market for free in order to drive competitors out of business. It seemed Microsoft had won. No serious competitors were left standing. In many tech circles, Microsoft was the Evil Empire.

Then came the Internet and Open Source Software (OSS) like Linux. A new paradigm for consuming information appeared and it’s popularity took the deeply entrenched Microsoft off guard. It seemed at each step Microsoft failed to anticipate what users (or the market) were looking for and cracks began to appear in the foundation of the Mighty Microsoft.

Enter “The Halloween Documents“, a series of internal memos that admitted – internally – the threat to Microsoft’s monopoly and possible strategies to combat these new technologies. These strategies included what has been described as the “embrace, extend, and extinguish” strategy, along with a campaign of misinformation to create fear in the eyes of consumers and discredit OSS.

As the cracks deepened, out of nowhere came Apple computer. The hobby computer, the niche darling of the arts community, suddenly became popular. Apple’s attention to design, functionality, and quality began to grab the notice of the general public and “hip” became mainstream. People who normally wouldn’t have thought twice about Macs began snatching up Macbooks, iMacs, and iPods. They went from being a $7 billion company in 2001 to a $311 billion company today. At the same time, Microsoft’s value plummeted. Without a concentrated effort, without a strategy or campaign, and with a lot of fun, Apple took over the computing world.

Microsoft, however, seems to have seen the light. Over the past few years, Microsoft has become a contributor to the open source community, releasing some promising projects of their own. Windows 7, their newest operating system, is a solid OS. They have one of the most open blogging cultures of any major company. Many developers and product managers have great blogs detailing the ins and outs of products at Microsoft. Many were wondering how the Empire would handle hacks to its recent Xbox Kinect release. When word of Kinect hacks hit the airwaves immediately following its release, Microsoft’s initial reaction was exactly what you’d expect: “Microsoft will continue to make advances in these types of safeguards and work closely with law enforcement and product safety groups to keep Kinect tamper-resistant.” But then they released a software development kit (SDK) to allow users to “tamper” with the device. Old habits die hard, but they do die.

But what does all this have to do with the new evil empire, Monsanto?

Instead of ruling the computer-technology sector, Monsanto rules the food-technology sector, with arguably a tighter fist than Microsoft ever dreamed of. When faced with criticism they have employed the same FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) that Microsoft was famous for: bankrupting farmers through lawsuits, strong-arming national governments, and scaring the world into adopting GMOs to feed the 9 billion people expected by 2050. (Never mind studies that show that natural farming methods can more than handle the burden).

As evil as Monsanto (and other GMO food manufacturers) may be, Microsoft’s recent history shows the power the consumer has to bring down a giant. Organic farming is the Apple of the food industry. We thought we had it good, with all that cheap food, not knowing what we were missing. But now that people have experienced a better alternative, the buzz will grow, and indeed, is growing. But we must continue the pressure. As we’ve seen lately with the approval of GMO beets and alfalfa, government regulation is not the answer. As consumers we must put our food dollars elsewhere. Buy local. Buy organic. Eat seasonal food. Grow your own. Invite your neighbors over for dinner and serve them real food. Let them know what they’re missing. Have fun.

Like Microsoft, once their customers turn up missing, GMO seed companies will make the change or die.

Right now, either of those seems pretty good to me.

Lessons Learned 3 – Love ‘Em Or Leave ‘Em?
March 8, 2011, 11:52 am
Filed under: Gardening

SlugI have a yard filled with oak trees. When fall comes, a flurry of activity happens in the neighborhood, an “us against them” street fight of humans against falling leaves. I used to be a part of the army, once stuffing 44 bags from my backyard alone. But I’ve defected to the other side. When the leaf bags pile up at the curb in November, I sit and rest, allowing mine to lay (or to blow freely, much to the frustration of my rake-wielding neighbors).

Leaves are a great winter mulch. They hold in warmth and moisture around plants. When they decompose they make terrific compost. They keep the bare ground of my garden covered, guarding it from erosion. They increase the soil pH level for my blueberries, azaleas, and camellias. And the earthworms love them! So I leave my leaves.

But there’s a bad side to every good side. A cloud to every silver lining. And in the case of leaf mulching, the cloud is filled with snails and their homeless cousins slugs. Last year, rather than raking the leaves completely off my garden bed, I simply raked them back from my planting rows before sinking my transplants and seeds in the ground. Little did I know that these slimy goons with their insatiable appetite for all things tender and green were lurking just under the mulch. They made quick work of many young seedlings, devouring them as fast as they could move from one plant to another – which is quicker than you might think.

So this year, I’m taking advantage of my leaf mulch by leaving it on the beds as long as possible. In fact, as I write this, the leaves are still on the ground (the picture, above was taken this morning, by the way). But my garden “to do” list tomorrow includes clearing the mulch a full month before official spring planting. Hopefully the slugs will go looking for a more suitable place to feed, and leave my helpless young plants alone.

This year I’ll love em – but I won’t leave ’em!

Trip To The Bee Yard
March 4, 2011, 4:03 am
Filed under: Bee Keeping

Had a great trip to the bee yard today. Shot this quick video. Looks like it’s going to be a good year!

Review: The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball
March 3, 2011, 12:57 am
Filed under: Reviews

The Dirty Life
The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball is several stories in one. At one level, it’s a love story. Two unlikely characters come together and fall in love. She (Kristin) is a Harvard educated writer living in Manhattan’s East Village. He (Mark) is a farmer from Pennsylvania. Meeting on a writing assignment at Mark’s farm, their first encounter includes butchering a pig, a first for 13-year vegetarian Kristin. As you can imagine, they fall in love, and the story continues, the melding of their two different worlds into one.

But this is also a story about farming. Both Kristin and Mark are first generation farmers. Through Kristin’s eyes, we see farm life from the ground up. The two come together and launch Essex Farm, a real agro-experiment. Together they hunt for their land, add animals, equipment and crops, then launch a full-diet CSA, something almost unheard of. We see first-hand the hard work, the crazy hours, the expense, both in terms of capital and relationship, that it takes to start and run a farm.

But this is also a story of plenty.

Plenty of Food

On almost every page, there’s food. Fresh food. Cooked food. Growing food. On one of their first nights together, Mark and Kristin stalk a deer munching on crops at the farm in Pennsylvania. They kill the deer, butcher it, and eat the liver for dinner. Kristin takes us step by step through the cooking of this wonderful meal, finishing with “I fell in love with him over a deer’s liver“. Mark loads Kristin’s car with crates of food as she returns to the city. She, in turn, shares food with a man in her neighborhood. Despite the challenges of farming that first, year, crops come through in spades: “We’d never again have such a wildly beautiful tomato patch, and it produced exceedingly well, as though even the plants themselves were inclined to help us when they could“.

Plenty of Work

Farming is hard work (though Mark wouldn’t call it work – he just calls it farming). On Kristin’s first trip to the farm she tries to help out, hoeing broccoli and raking rocks from rows of tomatoes. By mid-day, she’s sore, blistered, and her crotch is “chafed beyond repair”. But this is just the beginning. As they begin Essex farm, she finds that the work seems to be never ending. “There is no such thing as finished“, she tells us. “Work comes in a stream and has no end. There are only things that must be done now and things that can be done later.” We get the warning that it’s not necessarily commodity prices, lack of capital, or “acts of God” that kill farms. It’s burnout. We see Kristin and Mark wrestling with where to create boundaries and where to finally let go of things they simply can’t control. In the end, however, Kristin tells us, “I was in love with the work, too, despite its overabundance. The world had always seemed disturbingly chaotic to me, my choices too bewildering. I was fundamentally happier, I found, with my focus on the ground. For the first time, I could clearly see the connection between my actions and their consequences. I knew why I was doing what I was doing, and I believed in it.

Plenty of Community

There is one scene in which there is not an abundance of food. Mark and Kristin have just finished inspecting the farm at Essex. They’re tired and jet-lagged, and have not brought any food with them. Bicycling in to the small town of Essex, they find that there are no restaurants open and no stores available. Facing the long ride back to the farm, Kristin’s angry and contemplating sleeping on a park bench in town. Suddenly an elderly man appears, covered casserole in hand, heading to a church social at the Essex Episcopal Church. There they find a feast of Jell-O salads, baked beans, sliced ham, and…company. “Many of the people I met that night would become very important in our lives“, Kristin writes.

At the beginning of the book we get a peek at Kristin’s admitted loneliness. But by the end of the book, we’ve seen over and over the power of community, of neighborliness. Farming is hard work, and it can’t be done alone. Bad weather happens. A horse gets injured. Seedlings die. Knowledge of the land must be acquired. The small community of Essex comes through, each person humbly contributing what is uniquely theirs to give. “Our friends and neighbors helped. They saved us.

Though I feel certain Kristin wouldn’t put it this way, in many ways this is a spiritual book. Ragan Sutterfield speaks often of God’s bounty – how we live in a world of plenty, not scarcity. “The Dirty Life” shows in a very real way the provision of God.  But in this book we also see the goodness of work – hard, physical, work of the ground. And we see how a community working in relationship benefits – builds up – each individual, and increases the bounty available to all.

This is not a food or farm book that preaches about how broken our food system is. This is a story, well-told.